Topical Issue Debate

Planning Issues

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for facilitating this debate on an issue that I have raised a number of times and with which the Minister of State will be familiar. I refer to the building project in Naas that has been stalled for several years over a planning matter, leaving standing tower cranes that are a blight on the skyline and the town. Wherever a town or village has what is seen to be a stalled development or blighted streetscape, there is an unwarranted question mark over it. The purpose of this debate is to ask the Minister of State to use his good offices to contact the local authority and help it in every way possible to bring about a resolution.

Arbitration has been under way for some time. Because the issues have been outstanding for several years, it is imperative that immediate steps be taken to bring the matter to a resolution. One problem is that there is only one arbitrator for the entire country. I know this is so, as I obtained that information through parliamentary questions.

Notwithstanding the fact that the work is imminent, it remains necessary and desirable to focus attention on the issue at hand and to bring it to a conclusion at an early date. The same can be said of a number of adjoining towns that were victims of the economic crash. Sufficient time has gone by to enable the facilities to be restarted, to reinvigorate the stalled developments and to ensure that they become part and parcel of the economic entity that is Naas.

Will the Minister of State use his good offices to ascertain from the local authority what, if anything, is required beyond the resources currently available to it and to encourage speedy arbitration? If he is called on to do something further, will he do so early in order to bring about a satisfactory resolution? Approaching the Christmas season, it would be an important boost to the town were a settlement on the outstanding issues possible.

I thank the Deputy for raising what is an important matter for him, namely, the Naas town centre development. He has raised it a number of times and it is of concern to him and his constituents. However, the management of issues relating to town centres is primarily a matter for the relevant local authority. From inquiries made of Kildare County Council, I am informed that its involvement in this regard relates to the compulsory acquisition of two small parcels of land, with the main issue being the amount to be paid by the local authority to the landowners involved. I understand that both parcels of land are due for arbitration, with hearings on the first parcel taking place this week and hearings on the second scheduled for early in the new year. The remainder of the stalled town centre development is connected to NAMA, and Kildare County Council is precluded from involvement, while NAMA reports to the Minister for Finance on its activities.

My ministerial role as regards planning and development generally is mainly to provide and update the legislative and policy guidance framework, including national urban policy. I have no mandate regarding individual town centre developments, which are matters for local authorities. In the broader sense of urban policy initiatives to rejuvenate town centres, a number of measures have been introduced by my Department in recent years. Local authorities were requested to exercise restraint or, where possible, reduce commercial rates and local charges to assist local businesses in the current economic climate. The majority of local authorities have responded positively. Revised development contribution guidelines were introduced in January 2013 requesting that planning authorities put in place reduced development contributions to support town centre development and incentivise activity in the areas prioritised for development in the relevant core strategy. The publication of new guidelines on retail planning in April 2012 were aimed at promoting and supporting the vitality and viability of city and town centres. These guidelines retained the previous caps on store size in less populated and smaller towns and were aimed at striking the right balance to ensure that local monopolies were not created in smaller towns, as these would be detrimental to competition. In addition, the recently enacted Urban Regeneration and Housing Act 2015, which we passed in July, provides for the introduction of a vacant site levy to stimulate the development of vacant or under-utilised sites in urban areas with a view to restoring them to beneficial use.

In terms of Government action other than by my Department to provide assistance to retail businesses and stimulate economic activity in urban areas, a number of measures have been introduced since 2011, including the introduction of the 9% rate of VAT on certain goods and services, the halving of the lower rate of employers' PRSI and the introduction of the microenterprise loan scheme and the credit guarantee scheme, both of which have had take-up from the retail sector. Furthermore, the Government recently announced a new €30 million investment in rural towns and villages in the years ahead. This new scheme is aimed at supporting their revitalisation and increasing their attractiveness and sustainability with the aim of improving the living and working environment and enhancing their potential to support increased economic activity.

The combination of these measures is evidence of the Government's commitment to addressing town renewal issues generally, and we will continue to progress such initiatives. As indicated, however, the management of the stalled town centre development in Naas is primarily a matter for Kildare County Council in the first instance. With relevant processes under way involving NAMA and arbitration, it would be inappropriate for me as Minister of State to become involved or make any further comment on the matter.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I note the progress that has taken place to date, notwithstanding that the matter is primarily one for the local authority. In view of the fact that the Government has already allocated approximately €30 million for the upgrading of town centres throughout the country, it is appropriate for the Minister of State's Department to ask the various local authorities how and when they intend to use the funding and whether it would be possible to use it to complement the completion works required in Naas. Admittedly, the allocation is obviously for towns and villages all over the country.

One quality of a town that is of most benefit to its population and commercial sector is its appearance. If the appearance is good, it encourages people to come to the area, spend money there, and feel good about it. For a feel-good factor to manifest itself, it is important for the Minister of State to keep in touch with the local authority and inquire regularly to ensure that everything that can possibly be done is being done to bring about a rapid conclusion to the issues that have been outstanding for some time.

While we all expect it will still take some time to address the arbitration issues, the fact that arbitration has started should now give rise to the possibility of taking action in anticipation of the conclusion of the negotiations, so we will not have to wait until everything is done before we start making preparations for a final conclusion.

Again, I thank the Minister of State for his reply and recognise that he has already been in touch with the local authority in regard to this matter. I thank him and his officials for their interest in the issue. Will he try to ensure a rapid conclusion in respect of the outstanding works?

I welcome this debate because it concerns an area of deep interest to me. It is important that we debate and focus continually on how we can regenerate our towns and villages. As the Deputy requested, we will engage with the local authorities on the €30 million stimulus fund targeted at the renewal of towns and villages. We will be making calls in this respect. The local authorities will prioritise their submissions and send them to my Department, which will then assess them and make allocations accordingly.

Urban regeneration is very logical, and I support the Deputy in this regard. Urban regeneration is a priority for the Government. It is logical because it concerns sites in the middle of towns that are serviced in terms of infrastructure and public utilities. The sites are in the centre of communities and can be accessed by those communities. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to prioritise urban sites, including town-centre sites. For this reason, we brought forth the urban regeneration Bill in July of this year. There are a number of incentives in that legislation, but also a number of sanctions for landowners who do not bring their sites back into beneficial use. The Government will be and has been pursuing this vigorously.

I expect local authorities to be proactive in terms of the regeneration of sites, be they for commercial development or for housing, in town centres and villages. They have an obligation to be proactive. They need to resolve any issues associated with the sites. I encourage the local authorities, as the economy recovers and as opportunities arise, to bring sites back into beneficial use for the benefit of local economies and citizens in towns.

I acknowledge the role of NAMA, which is in control of many of the sites. It reports to the Minister for Finance. It needs to be made clear that NAMA has a social responsibility to make progress on the sites and remove them from the list of vacant, blighted or derelict sites. NAMA has a role in bringing forward proposals to bring sites back into beneficial use as early as possible. That message will be sent to those concerned.

Pension Provisions

I wish to highlight an issue that many people mistakenly believe has been solved. Sadly, it has not, and that is why I feel the need to raise it on the floor of the Dáil. People will be well aware of the Waterford Crystal pensions issue. The factory was the pride of Waterford and it was shut down very suddenly. Scenes from the grey days of the closure were carried on the news and are burnt into the memory of every person in Waterford. There is not a family in Waterford that has not been affected. This is a very difficult time for everybody.

My colleague, the former MEP Proinsias De Rossa, was one of the people who from the very early days supported the former workers in pointing out that they might have a case to bring in respect of their pensions after the double insolvency of the company. As we know, the case was fought by this State and brought to the European Court of Justice before being sent to the Irish courts for settlement. As a Waterford Deputy, I believe the route that was taken was a very difficult one. It brought me no pleasure to see the case being fought in the court system. However, I have done my very best to support the workers as best I could. I have set up meetings and kept in close contact with the former workers and Unite all along the way. Much of the work has been behind the scenes. I have been fighting the corner of the former workers at every opportunity presented to me, be it in regard to PRSI reimbursement or the outcome agreed. I thank the Labour Relations Commission, Mr. Kieran Mulvey, Unite and the Department of Social Protection for brokering the conclusion on the deal.

What makes me raise this issue, however, brings me no pleasure, although there have been some very positive developments in the Waterford Crystal pensions case in the past year, with a sum of €182 million agreed as compensation after the company and its pension scheme went into insolvency. The agreement was announced last December. Included in the settlement was a lump-sum payment of approximately €45 million. It has taken a while, and there have been many ups and downs on the journey, but I am very happy to see that during the summer months, to the considerable relief of the workers and their families, they received their lump-sum payments. However, two issues arise and I will not go back to Waterford this week until I have an answer in respect of both. People are sick of ringing my office and the Department only to have no information forthcoming. I spoke to a man this morning who said he had paid his dues for 42 years and was not asking for anything to which was not entitled. Of the 1,774 claimants in the case, the number of pensioners is actually quite small. What I want to know is when these pensioners will get their payment. The people who have turned 66 are entitled to their pensions and are still waiting for this matter to be sorted. I demand to know what the delay is. Have the pensioners not been waiting long enough? I have been trying to get answers for weeks, to no avail. I acknowledge that the staff of the Department of Social Protection have been brilliant, particularly the team led by Mr. Liam Daly in the offices on the Cork Road in Waterford, but we need to get this sorted. The request is simple.

The second question, which is very emotive, requires an answer. Since the pension case was put in train, 44 people have died. I refer to the issue of the deceased workers and their families. One man, Mr. Tommy Allen, whom the Tánaiste met, received his lump sum in recent weeks, one week before he sadly passed away. He is but one of 44 who are deceased. The terms of the settlement that was agreed and announced last December are such that the families of the deceased are to receive their entitlements. However, there seems to be a delay here also. I want answers on this.

In many cases the relatives of the deceased are in their 80s. Not only are they trying to cope with losing a beloved family member but also they do not have the wherewithal to keep chasing down what is rightfully theirs.

I thank the Deputy for her remarks on the work that Mr. Liam Daly and his team are doing locally. I also acknowledge the work of Unite and the Labour Relations Commission. In addition, I know Deputy Conway has constantly raised this issue, if not daily then certainly weekly in recent years.

The mediated agreement for the former Waterford Crystal workers, which covers 1,774 scheme members, provides for the payment of a tax-free once-off lump sum of €1,200 for every year of scheme service, not exceeding 40 years, plus fortnightly payment of moneys in respect of pensionable service which is payable from the normal retirement date of the scheme members. To date, 1,574 lump sum payments have been authorised, totalling €42.1 million. Work is ongoing in the Department of Social Protection to finalise payment of the remaining lump sums. This matter is being prioritised.

In tandem with this, officials of the Department are working on putting in place the administrative arrangements to facilitate the payment of moneys in respect of pensionable service. Given that these pension payments will be in place for decades to come, it is essential that appropriate operational and system arrangements are put in place for their ongoing maintenance and payment. I am advised that immediate action is required in respect of approximately 250 scheme members, or their spouses, or personal representatives in the case of deceased members, who have reached retirement age since the date of the winding up of the schemes in March 2009.

Of the cases requiring immediate attention, the Department is finalising arrangements to make actuarially calculated payments to the personal representatives of deceased scheme members who had not reached pension age, which comprise approximately 20 cases. It is anticipated that these payments will be made in late November or early December. Once paid, no further payments will arise in this small number of cases.

With regard to the arrangements for all other cases, officials of the Department have been in ongoing communication with officials of the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in addition to other State agencies such as the national shared services office, the Paymaster General pensions unit and PeoplePoint to explore the various options to facilitate the pension payments. The Department of Social Protection has engaged with other Departments to put in place the necessary administrative and payment functions as a matter of urgency and is seeking to include this within the normal payroll and pension payment arrangements. In this context, the shared services model is the preferred option for the payment and ongoing maintenance of pension payments.

Given the complexity involved in finalising the payment arrangements, I am not in a position to advise the Deputy as to a definitive completion date. Notwithstanding this, it must be emphasised that it is a matter of priority, both for the Tánaiste and the Department, and it is hoped that the payment of pensions will commence in the coming months. I am assured that every effort is being made to get the pension payments progressed as quickly as possible.

The Deputy has raised this issue not only with me but also with the Tánaiste. It is a matter of urgency and we will work tirelessly with other Departments to try to resolve any outstanding difficulties. The Deputy can rest assured that we will do everything we possibly can to ensure all those payments are put in place. It is important, however, that the payment arrangements are made on a sustainable model. Pension payments will be made over several decades, so it is important we get this right from the beginning. There must be no interruption of services as a result of the preparation work not being done properly for the commencement of those payments. I reassure the Deputy that in cases where payments are to be backdated, that will happen.

I welcome that in his response the Minister of State has given a commitment that payments will be made in late November or early December to the relatives or personal representatives of deceased scheme members. There are approximately 250 such cases to be dealt with. However, the Minister of State can understand what it must be like for the remaining workers who have reached pension age. They cannot plan because they do not know when the money is going to come to them. How long is a piece of string? Are we talking about this calendar year or next year?

I appreciate that a lot of wheels have to be put in motion while trying to get people to work together. I believe this is a priority for the Department of Social Protection, but is it a priority for other Departments? That is my concern because these people's lives have been put on hold. They pressed a pause button when Waterford Crystal and the pension scheme became insolvent. Many households have suffered anguish and worry because they have not been able to plan. I could tell the Minister of State very personal stories of people trying to meet medical bills or putting off weddings. People have not been able to get on with their lives.

I am not prepared to be fobbed off and told it will happen in the coming months. These workers deserve to know what is happening. I realise the Tánaiste has worked very hard on this matter. As a local Deputy, however, I cannot go back down to Waterford this weekend without better information than that. I am sorry but I need answers.

The Department and local officials have worked tirelessly on this matter. We are in constant contact and are having discussions to ensure these payments are made as quickly, efficiently and sustainably as possible. I would love to be able to tell Deputy Conway that it will be next week or next month, and so would all my departmental officials. As the Deputy rightly pointed out, however, many wheels must be put in motion in this regard. We also have to get it right. I can well understand how Waterford Crystal is branded into people's hearts because they thought they were in safe, secure, long-term jobs. They went into a job for life because that is what Waterford Crystal was.

The Irish Glass Bottle Company in my area was a sister firm to Waterford Crystal. I will not give history lessons because we both know about the foundations of both companies and how one spun from the other. Many of my friends also lost their jobs and faced redundancy but they had to fight for their entitlements.

I can certainly understand the frustration and annoyance that Waterford Crystal workers have experienced because the payments are not coming quickly enough. All I can say is that the Tánaiste, I and the Department will work tirelessly to try to ensure the payments are made as soon as possible. Any delay will be reflected in backdated payments. However, I am not going to mislead the Deputy or the workers and their families. As soon as we have precise, accurate information we will come back directly to the Deputy, Unite and the workers to let them know exactly the factual position. We will move to that position as quickly as we possibly can. I will certainly keep in weekly contact with Deputy Conway concerning this matter.

People who have lost their jobs in Waterford Crystal do not want to hear we are going to make that payment in the second week in December and then we do not hit the target. That would be unfair and unjust. As soon as we have that precise information I will ensure it is given to the families who are affected by this.

We will do it as quickly as we can. I know Department officials have a personal relationship with this, because they know the workers who have come in and out of the Intreo offices. In many cases, they know them on a personal basis. From the point of view of the Department of Social Protection, it is more than simply a payment. Having listened to officials, I detect there is virtually a mission to try to get this done as quickly, effectively and efficiently as possible. I can give Deputy Conway that commitment. I am sorry about the news and that I cannot give the Deputy a date in December or January, but we will do it as quickly as we possibly can.

Nursing Home Inspections

Deputies Brian Stanley and Sean Fleming have four minutes in total to make initial statements. I understand they are sharing time and Deputy Stanley is first.

I welcome the opportunity to raise with the Minister the important issue of what has happened in respect of St. Vincent's Community Nursing Unit in Mountmellick. The cessation of admissions has had serious consequences because there is a major shortage of public nursing home beds in County Laois. Only a handful of long-stay beds are available now in Abbeyleix and Shaen. The units there are mainly respite facilities. The unit in Mountmellick had been taking the bulk of long-stay patients. There is a need for a major initiative on the part of the Government. The unit in Mountmellick was already operating under capacity due to the closure of St. Joseph's ward a little over six years ago.

While it is important that proper standards are met, I have some questions about some of HIQA's requirements, particularly those regarding single occupancy rooms. I am unsure whether it is a question of being practical or if they are the best for patients. Certainly, many people who work in the profession see them as a bad thing because they isolate patients.

The findings in the report on the unit at Mountmellick included a reference to an inadequate number of toilets and inadequate washing facilities to meet the needs of residents. This must be addressed. Only two toilets are available in some areas along with a shower room. These facilities are to cater for 22 patients. Staff and patients have had to use commodes and that is not satisfactory.

The HSE has submitted a national plan to the Department of Health, including plans to upgrade Mountmellick and the other two nursing hospitals in the county at Abbeyleix and Shaen. These have been neglected by successive Governments. The Government has earmarked €300 million in the capital plan for upgrading facilities. Now is the time to move and prioritise the matter. It is badly needed. There is a chronic shortage of long-stay beds in the county.

I wish to raise directly with the Minister the question of what action will be taken by him, the Department of Health and the HSE in respect of St. Vincent's Community Nursing Unit in Mountmellick in order that it can admit patients again.

Some weeks ago I received a telephone call from a lady whose elderly mother was due to go in for respite care the following Tuesday. This was on the previous Thursday and they were told the elderly woman could not come in. The daughter asked what would happen and she was told that the woman could go to St. Brigid's Hospital in Shaen in the interim. However, works are under way in St. Brigid's Hospital in Shaen as well. That in itself is a good thing but it meant there was nowhere for the woman to go at the time.

Word filtered out and hit the local media sometime later. Patients were being told on a one-to-one basis and it would have been far better if personnel had been more upfront about it at the beginning rather than people picking it up through the grapevine. It was a bombshell when this information broke, but some were aware of it at that point.

The main issue has been referred to and well documented. There are some large wards in these facilities and HIQA has said there was a lack of dignity for patients. That should not be the case. I know it will cost money to correct. We have had difficulties in Shaen and Abbeyleix in recent years as well as difficulties in the Midland Regional Hospital, Portlaoise. All of this information has been filtering into every HSE hospital in the county. This is undermining public confidence in the HSE. It is our job to help us restore confidence in these institutions. They have served people well in the past and we want them to continue operating. The fact that Mountmellick has been closed for admissions in recent times is causing difficulties in the Midland Regional Hospital, Portlaoise, due to delayed discharges. That issue needs to be raised also.

HIQA pointed to some good things in Mountmellick. The report stated that hygiene, cleaning and many other things under the control of the staff in respect of the environment were working well. It is not all bad news, but we want to eliminate the problems.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. I am taking the debate on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, who is on Government business elsewhere.

St. Vincent's Community Nursing Unit is located on the outskirts of Mountmellick and provides much-needed residential services for the people of Laois. It comes under the remit of the HSE. Deputies will be aware that the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, registers and inspects residential care facilities throughout the country. The current registration status of the hospital includes a condition that no new residents may be admitted, except to the palliative care suite, until a funded plan to reconfigure the physical environment has been submitted to HIQA.

While the issue raised refers specifically to the admissions restriction at St. Vincent's unit, I am aware that at a wider level there are concerns about the implications of the national standards for residential facilities more generally. The Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, who has responsibility for services for older people in my Department, addressed this issue in the House last week in a response during a Topical Issue debate. I will briefly restate what she said on that occasion, and I endorse her comments.

The Government's recently published capital programme, Building on Recovery: Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2016-2021, commits to a major multiannual programme of capital investment in public and voluntary social care facilities. The overall programme includes €300 million for the development of community nursing units for older people and new improved models of accommodation for people with a disability, particularly in respect of de-congregation. There is further potential to develop more projects through public private partnerships. Building on investments already scheduled, this additional funding will allow the relevant facilities to comply with the national standards by the end of the new capital plan period, that is, by 2021. A major national programme will now be put in place to address on a prioritised basis the refurbishment and new-build requirement.

The shortage of public capital funds in recent years due to the economic crisis has meant a significant number of publicly provided or voluntarily provided services have not met the physical infrastructure standards within the previously agreed timeframe of 1 July 2015. The works required range from refurbishment to replacement of facilities concerned. As a result of the capital programme, the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, outlined a revised policy and timeframe to ensure all public and voluntary services can demonstrate to HIQA that they will achieve the relevant national standards by 2021. In the coming weeks the HSE will submit to HIQA its plans, focused at individual service level, to meet the requirements of standard 25, the standard relating to physical infrastructure. These individual plans will be in line with the revised policy timeframe and will detail proposed capital expenditure at each individual centre. The HSE will assist the voluntary providers with which it has a service level agreement in submitting these individual plans.

This decision was absolutely necessary to ensure that older people continue to have access to the services they need. The imposition of a compliance timeline that was unachievable would have led to facilities closing throughout the country with others having to reduce their bed numbers. Older people and their families as well as others who need these services would not thank us if that were allowed to happen. It would certainly have exacerbated overcrowding in our acute hospitals - in some cases, this is already happening.

While compliance with this particular standard has been particularly problematic for our public units, I am keen to acknowledge the considerable financial investment made by private and independent nursing homes in recent years in an effort to meet these environmental and other standards. I hope that HIQA will give consideration to any similar plans to achieve full compliance that may be put forward by the private and independent sector where issues arise as well.

The Minister referred to a revised timeframe. A revised timeframe is fine and it gives time for the hospital to comply. The problem is the build-up of long-stay patients requiring public nursing home care. They require high-dependency nursing home care in the meantime but we do not have places for them.

The three nursing units in County Laois are operating below capacity. The issue is the standard of the buildings. At the same time we have an increase in demand due to demographics and the increasing population in the county. There is an onus on the Government. I have no wish for the Government to simply restart admissions to Mountmellick. I realise it did not happen under the term of the current Government but the wards closed in Mountmellick need to be reopened. There is a major shortage of capacity in the county.

I would like to see that plan being advanced and a timeframe announced.

Will the Minister give a commitment today that Mountmellick, Abbeyleix and Shaen will be included in the new capital programme? This cannot be delayed any further. It has been delayed for years and changes have been made. The deadline to comply with HIQA standards was 1 July this year. As the Minister mentioned, that has now been extended and there are individual plans. While the plans are being drawn up, the patients who need accommodation are coming forward to Deputies like myself and my constituency colleagues. Families are telling us there are no nursing home beds for their relatives. I ask the Minister to give a commitment to include the areas to which I referred in the capital programme.

I acknowledge the Minister's reply and agree with the decision to extend the deadline for various institutions to comply with HIQA requirements to 2021, because it was not going to be possible to reach it in the short term. The Minister said the HSE would submit a plan to HIQA in the coming weeks. We expect something on the future of health care facilities over a six-year period to be a secret document, and I ask that it be published at that stage.

It is important that everything possible be done to reassure residents, their families and staff following the upset caused by the manner in which this matter has been handled in recent weeks. Some measure should be put in place to alleviate that. In view of the five-year timescale and given that places such as Abbeyleix could take up to 50 residents, there may be a solution. In recent years, 30 to 35 people have been accommodated, but that figure has now been reduced to a tiny number. There is a good case for allowing that number to increase to 30 or 35, as in recent years, and to use the five-year breathing space to facilitate such a solution.

The details of the new capital plan running to 2021 are currently being finalised and should be ready in the next few weeks. In some places it will involve refurbishing an existing unit. In others, where it is not economical to carry out refurbishments, replacements will be provided and expansion can be considered in that context. Obviously, priority will be given to those that are most far behind, if that makes sense, in meeting HIQA building standards. I cannot give any specific commitment on any specific centre today for any part of the country because the plan will have to be carried out comprehensively on a national basis.

Deputy Stanley mentioned single-occupancy rooms. It is permitted under the standards to have dual occupancy rooms, but it is no longer possible to have rooms with four, six or 12 people. I have visited some units, including a very old one in Carrick-on-Shannon, for example, and listened to residents and family members. They were happy with the standard of care, but the quality of the building was not very good. I suggest that people visit new buildings such as the community nursing unit in the Phoenix Park, which used to be St. Mary's hospital. One can really see what the units should look like and what the modern standard of care for the elderly is. It is only when one sees this that one realises quite how inappropriate some of the older units are.

Many community nursing units are in buildings that are 100, 150 or 200 years old. Very many are old workhouses or county homes. While it was acceptable to have people living in rooms of six, ten or 12 beds on old-fashioned Florence Nightingale wards up to ten years ago, it is not acceptable now and into the future, and certainly not in ten years' time. It is not possible to replace 200 years' worth of infrastructure in a few years. We lost six or seven years as a consequence of the economic crisis. The economy is now growing and as long as we continue that, keep the recovery strong and protect it from those who would undermine it, we will have the possibility of catching up over the next six years on what we missed out on in the past six years and bringing all of these units for older people and people with disabilities up to standard.

Fishing Industry

I thank the Minister for his ongoing commitment to the fishing industry, particularly in light of the last capital plan. There was a very welcome announcement for ports such as Castletownbere. I also welcome his ongoing commitment to providing coastal areas throughout the country with capital support, in conjunction with local authorities, to allow for investment in piers and quays along our coastline.

The landing obligation or ban on discards introduced as a result of the new Common Fisheries Policy under Regulation (EU) No. 1380/2013 is a new departure and one that is necessary in light of much media comment and public concern about the requirement for fishing vessels to discard perfectly good dead fish into our oceans because they do not have a quota for them, they are undersized or whatever. Fishermen are simply not able to land perfectly good fish, and there was a political move to do something about it.

Following several years of negotiations and in the lead-up to the adoption of the Common Fisheries Policy, the landing obligation, or ban on discards, was introduced. It has been introduced in pelagic species in the north-western waters of Ireland, Belgium, Spain, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Pelagic species such as mackerel, herring, horse mackerel, blue whiting, boar fish, smelt, albacore tuna and sprat already come under the landing obligation.

It is no harm to examine how that has worked within the pelagic sector. There have been some hiccups and it has been difficult for skippers and owners to deal with the system, but in the polyvalent sector, demersal fishing will be the real challenge for the Department, the Commission and the fisheries sector. The demersal species include cod, haddock, whiting, saithe, pollock, Norway lobster, nephrops, common sole, plaice and hake.

The discard ban, or landing obligation, is coming into effect on 1 January 2016. There is major concern within the industry. It is my job, as a public representative who hears about this concern on a daily basis in places such as Castletownbere and Union Hall, to address it. There are real issues facing the industry and individual fishermen in dealing with their landing obligations, which they take seriously.

I recognise that the Minister has established a discard ban implementation committee, led by Dr. Noel Cawley. It would be unfair if I did not mention that there is a lot of confusion or a lack of knowledge about how the committee is operating and reporting and what it is considering. Perhaps the producer organisations are dealing with it more intensively. I have spoken to skippers and fishermen who have told me there is a great lack of knowledge as to how the committee is working. Many issues need to be considered, such as quota lists and logging of discards. There are technical issues such as the selectivity of gear. Smaller vessels which have smaller holds may not have room for their legitimate catches if, rather than discarding non-quota species, they have to bring them in. Fish may be landed on quays that may not be as well serviced as fishery harbour centres. What will happen to such fish? There are questions about what happens to undersized fish that are landed. There are many technical questions and it is only reasonable that they be aired in advance of 1 January 2016. I look forward to the Minister's response and an ongoing debate over the next few weeks and months on this issue.

One of the key elements of reform of the Common Fisheries Policy is the introduction of a phased ban on the discarding of unwanted fish catches. In June 2013, under the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union, a practical and phased discards policy or landing obligation was agreed. The first part of the landing obligation, namely, the ban on the discarding of pelagic stocks such as herring and mackerel, came into effect on 1 January 2015 and will be extended to certain demersal stocks, i.e., white fish and prawns, from 1 January 2016.

The landing obligation will be fully phased in for all quota stocks by 1 January 2019. It is with regard to quota stocks and not non-quota stocks.

The phasing-in period was one of my key demands during the negotiations, to allow fishermen time to adjust and implement changes to avoid unwanted catches. Under the new Common Fisheries Policy, the details of how the landing obligation will apply in particular fisheries, and what, if any, flexibility, for example de minimis which would allow some discarding, can be applied are decided upon by regional groups and member states in consultation with stakeholders. Ireland is a member of the north-western waters group, along with Belgium, France, the Netherlands, the UK and Spain. Stakeholders are represented at the north-western waters regional advisory council and the pelagic advisory council. After intense negotiations, it was agreed in June of this year that from 1 January 2016 for the north-western waters the ban on discarding will apply to the prawn, or nephrops, fishery in all waters, the whiting fishery in the Celtic Sea, the haddock fishery in the Irish Sea and the north-west area, the hake fishery in all areas and the sole fishery in the Celtic Sea. The other stocks will be phased in over the following three years. Nobody is asking anybody to do anything massive in one year. This will be done piece by piece. We can see the difficulties as they emerge and we can try to solve them. That is what this is about.

The vessels which will be subject to the landing obligation in 2016 are being identified on the basis of a combination of gear type and historic landing data. For example, a vessel that had more than 25% of cod, haddock, whiting and saithe combined in its landings from the Celtic Sea in 2013 and 2014 will be obliged to land all the whiting it catches in the Celtic Sea next year.

This is a big ask for the industry. This is a big change to the Common Fisheries Policy but let us be clear that up to 40% of the adult and juvenile fish caught under the Common Fisheries Policy since it was last reformed, and before that, has been dumped into the sea dead. The idea that this is okay, because it is difficult to manage an alternative to simply dump what is estimated to be 400,000 tonnes of fish, needed to change. This is equivalent in weight to all of the beef we export from this country, and we are the biggest exporter of beef by far in the European Union. The Irish Government is now going to change it, and we will move away from what is called a landed quota for fishermen. At present, if fishermen have a quota of five tonnes and they catch eight tonnes, they need to dump three tonnes into the sea. Instead, they will have a catch quota, which will provide challenges for fishermen and we will help them through this.

We have the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, EMFF, which is double anything we ever had before for the fishing sector. It is a significant amount of money to spend on the fishing industry to help it adapt to the transformation we need to fund over the coming years. We have started with pelagic fish and it has worked. We are now moving to some demersal stocks for next year, those we believe we can implement most easily, and we will learn as we go along and help fishermen adapt. There are flexibilities we can use and obviously there will be tolerance when it is introduced on 1 January. This change must be made, and let us be absolutely clear about this. It will be done and it must be done. The producer organisations and fishermen, by and large, have been working with us to try to ensure it works in a practical way.

I have been in Castletownbere, where we held a meeting specifically on this on the quayside, answering questions for approximately an hour and a half. Dr. Noel Cawley has a job to do to make sure communication continues until and after 1 January to ensure the implementation of the new policy, which is about creating healthier fish stocks so there is more fish for everybody to catch. The win for fishermen is that moving from a landed quota to a catch quota means they should get a quota uplift when we negotiate quotas in December. This means we should, hopefully, get access to catching more prawns than we would otherwise have been able to catch because we will not be dumping any over the side. We must factor in this, with regard to everything that will be landed in the future. There is an upside for the fishing industry. There is an immediate upside in quota uplift, which needs to be negotiated on the basis of science, and, of course, there is a medium to long-term significant uplift in terms of the health of the stocks. This can be a good news story but together we will have to learn to adapt and change how we fish. I am certainly up for this in terms of the support programmes we will put in place.

I very much welcome the Minister's response. We are not trying to unwind the landing obligation or the discard ban. It is difficult, but there is no turning back and this is the reality which must be dealt with. Throwing fish back is abhorrent to fishermen; what they do is catch fish. They are not there to throw them back and they do not want to throw them back. They would wish to have a mechanism whereby they do not have to do this, and this is it.

The point I am making is there are real difficulties as envisaged by fishermen, particularly in the demersal sector. If one has a whiting quota but not a haddock quota, it is very difficult to segregate the species. I accept the Minister's response. It is a new departure for everyone, including the Department, the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, and the fishing sector. The reason I am raising this on the floor of the Dáil is, exactly as the Minister said, that phasing it in is the correct way to do it. There will be hurdles to cross between now and 1 January, and over the coming year or two. I am pleased the Minister has said the Department will be accommodating in every way it can to help the sector and I urge that this is so. Getting to maximum sustainable yield in fisheries is the right policy. Without fish there is no fishing industry, and I and the sector fully agree with this. It will take some difficult decisions and new management processes to deal with this.

The feeling on the ground is one of uncertainty and doubt because, as the Minister recognises, the demersal sector is not the jewel of the crown of the fishing industry. It has had difficult times. One could argue the fleet is at overcapacity. The quota we have is simply not viable for many of the vessels, which are small. On top of this, the issue of dealing with landing obligation is creating real doubt and concern in much of the demersal sector and for this reason it is only fair to bring it before the House. I accept and I hope the Department, Dr. Noel Cawley's implementation group and the industry will come together to find real solutions to the obstacles which lay ahead. This is the right thing to do but it is very difficult, and this needs to be recognised in full by all stakeholders.

The place to start is to inform people about what is being asked of them because there is major confusion. We have been trying to do so. I have been to Castletownbere and we spent quite a bit of time with the fishing industry specifically on this issue. I have also been to Kilmore Quay, where I took questions for two and a half hours from fishermen on this issue. It is the responsibility of Dr. Noel Cawley's group to have these town hall meetings and very practical discussions about what is being asked and what is not being asked. No one is asking a fisherman to bring in starfish and land it on the quayside. They can discard them. In terms of quota species, we will introduce stocks to the quota over a period of time, as we learn to be more targeted and accommodate through the management tools we have negotiated in the Common Fisheries Policy a way in which we catch what we land as opposed to catching a lot of fish which we do not have the capacity to land because we do not have the quota for them. We have had some success in this, particularly with regard to juvenile fish.

If we consider the change in mesh size and net design in the Celtic Sea, for example, we have reduced dramatically the number of juvenile fish being caught in that fishery. We can learn from that. Likewise, there has been much experimentation in the Irish Sea and other prawn fisheries with the aim of avoiding catching cod. We need to encourage fishermen to do that.

We have a package that is worth €241 million with the new European Marine and Fisheries Fund, EMFF. That is more than twice any other package that has ever been negotiated for the Irish fishing industry. We have that so we can facilitate, support and finance the change programme required over the next few years. I appeal to fishermen not to see this as a threat but rather as an opportunity that requires them to look differently at their management systems and how they fish. Sometimes when people are challenged and a bit confused about what is being asked of them, the response is one of resistance because they think there is an ulterior motive. There is no such motive in this case as this is about trying to create healthier, bigger stocks of fish at sea in order that we can catch more fish. It is also about ensuring we are using the science, innovation and technology we have available to be more targeted in our fishing.

It is complicated when we speak about a mixed fishery, with different quotas applying to different stocks all being caught in the same net. That is the particular difficulty we will have to face. In the Celtic Sea, which is arguably the most complex fishery around the Irish coast, we are starting with the easiest of the three in the cod, haddock and whiting fishery, namely, whiting, and we will see how that works. We will co-operate with fishermen to ensure it works and we will extend the process to other species year on year. Nothing is being rushed and this will happen in a phased way between now and 2019. There is much money to help us get there with respect to changed management systems and gear that is required but it would be disastrous for the fishing industry to think we can resist this because it is new and we do not like it. To be fair, the people involved will not take that route. Let us work together on this so that in five or six years we will have healthier stocks and more profitable fishing, which ultimately is what this is about.